Monday 4 March 2024

Midnight Mass










Fallen Angel

Midnight Mass
TV Mini Series
7 episodes September 2021
Canada/USA
Directed by Mike Flanagan


Warning: All the spoilers... well, many of them implied, at the very least. If you don’t want to know, don’t read.

Midnight Mass is the third recent(ish) hit series created by Mike Flanagan, who is a director I find a little hit and miss. I loved Absentia (reviewed here) and Doctor Sleep (reviewed here) for example but hated Oculus (reviewed here) and was fairly entertained but ultimately disappointed in his hit show The Haunting Of Hill House (reviewed here), which took more than just a few liberties with the original source material. Although some of the cast from that show and his follow up adaptation of The Turn Of The Screw, aka The Haunting Of Blye Manor, are still working with him here.

And that was one of the good things about this show... the acting in this is, once again, incredible and the highly talented cast, including such people as Zach Gilford, Kate Siegel, Hamish Linklater, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli and Henry Thomas... are what keep you watching. That and the way the script unfolds although, I have to say, I did have a few problems myself in that I was disappointed in the way the story chose to develop, the lack of any surprises and what I also think might be a major mistake in terms of the inner ‘physics’ of the series that seems to have been overlooked (unless a load of stuff was cut out which would originally explain a certain oversight).

The series has a strong theme of Religious faith, practice and, ultimately, fanaticism and the story deals, on the surface of the first episode, with a new priest transferred to a small island community who, well, starts bringing little miracles with him. Indeed the seven episodes are named after biblical terms so we have Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, Gospel, Acts Of The Apostles and Revelations. The majority of the small population of the island are Christian, asides from a Muslim sheriff and his son... and the more they attend the Sunday service and take the sacrament, where they eat the body of Christ and drink his blood, as proxied by wafers and wine... the more their senses start to sharpen, some of them begin to look younger, a paralysed girl walks... and so on. The only real non-practicing Christian character is a young man who has just served four years in prison for drink driving and killing a woman as he fell asleep at the wheel. He is haunted each night by the corpse of the woman watching over him as he tries to sleep and he is the one who really starts to question what he’s seeing on the island when things start to get... miraculous.

Okay, I will say that I loved the show, it held my attention, I was hooked and entertained for all seven episodes and I would recommend it to all my horror loving friends... but...

Okay, here’s the thing. It telegraphs itself heavily as it goes. By the end of the first episode I realised who the mystery priest really was due to the story being a little too heavy handed with its hints... something not ‘revealed’ until the end of episode three. In the second episode I realised just who the father of the young lady who is the island doctor was. And added to this, my first reaction at seeing a lot of the people in this show was... why are they all wearing ‘old person’ make up. Ever since I was a kid and I saw the Star Trek episode The Deadly Years, I’ve been disappointed with ‘ageing’ make-up. You can tell right away when someone has been done up with this, even if they’ve only been aged a little... so I knew very early on that it was only there to slowly come off as the show progressed and that the only common catalyst that could get this reaction in people was the sacrament. I figured out the priest, played absolutely brilliantly by Hamish Linklater in a riveting performance, was putting something in the wine and, yes, that it was probably something like blood.

The story felt just a little too much like ‘Salem’s Lot to me but, that’s okay, I love that book and the original TV mini series. And the reason it disappointed me a little is because, when it’s revealed that the ‘angel’ in the desert who de-aged the priest was a kind of flying demon of some kind, the story went directly into vampire mode, with the priest mistaking the word of God for vampire mythos (although the word vampire is never referenced and none of the characters seem to have any point of reference for them... which frankly they could have used by the time they’d get up to episode seven). Also, the priest in question has already died and been infused with vampire blood before he returns to the island as a young man... so he really should already be sensitive to light and start burning up in the sunlight (like everybody else in the story) but, no, he kind of dies again and then starts going through that whole process... which really makes no sense compared to the ‘rules’ that exist for everybody else. So, yeah, bits  of this really annoyed me, to be honest.

That being said, I did like the flying vampire guy who is somewhat reminiscent in appearance of a winged version of Nosferatu (who was, of course, the basis for the look of the vampire in ‘Salem’s Lot, my review of the TV show can be found here). However, it also seems clear to me that his look is greatly inspired from Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell’s iconic painting of a winged demon entitled Vampire’s Kiss... which has inspired a few movie monsters in its time, I believe. So, I guess, if they had to go down the vampire route... at least we have one in this series which looks really great, it has to be said (and who eats a lot of cats, too).

However, asides from these gaping plot holes and going down the vampire route instead of, well, maybe exploring the ways religion taken as a literal thing can also overlap with vampire folklore, which I think would have been more interesting, I thought Midnight Mass was a pretty addictive show and certainly worth a look for fans of horror. Also, there’s some great imagery introduced into the show, like waking up to a beach full of hundreds of dead cats one morning... lots to look at but, ultimately, it felt as flawed as it was entertaining.

Sunday 3 March 2024

Dune Part Two









Harkonnen
The Barbarian


Dune Part Two
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
USA/Canada
2024 Warner Brothers
UK Cinema Print


Okay, so I quite liked Denis Villeneuve’s first attempt to film Frank Herbert’s landmark science fiction novel Dune (reviewed here) and, I have to say, I really liked the second one too. People are maybe over hyping this a little and calling Dune Part Two a great masterpiece. I can appreciate it may feel like that due to the epic scale of the production (although, I think that’s something of an illusion) but, out of Villeneuve’s various films I’d say that some of his others, such as Arrival (reviewed here) are much better.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty entertaining film with an incredibly long running time which, honestly, doesn’t feel like anything half as long. The reason I say the epic scale is a bit of an illusion is because, honestly, the majority of this one takes place just on Dune (aka Arrakis) itself... with the only other scenes being set on the worlds of the Emperor and Baron Harkonnen. But they are brief scenes in the scheme of things and, the majority of the action here follows the plight of Paul Atriedes, played pretty well by Timothée Chalamet (I’ll get to that in a minute) and Chani, played wonderfully by Zendaya. So it’s a lot of running around in the sand with some really great guerilla warfare action scenes and lots of stuff like sandworm riding. And it really doesn’t get dull.

Oh... and about that. The special effects in this are great but, UK readers of a certain age will, I’m sure, know exactly what I’m talking about when I say the sandworm riding scenes are like something straight out of Michael Bentine’s Potty Time. It was all I could think of while watching these sequences throughout the movie. So, I also got a lot of smiles mixed in with the drama.

There are a lot of great actors in this including the almost wasted Rebecca Ferguson (that’s just me... I always want her in more scenes no matter what film she’s in), Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, Dave Bautista, Léa Seydoux, Stellan Skarsgård and Charlotte Rampling (who is very underused also, compared to the build up of her role in the first movie). Everyone’s great in this but... I do want to just say something about Chalamet and two other actors in the movie, namely Christopher Walken as the Emperor and Florence Pugh as his daughter. Who are all good in this but, I don’t know, seem a little inappropriately placed, it seems to me.

Okay, so Chalamet is always good in whatever he’s in but, towards the end I don’t think the casting suited him. Lets look at another film series which borrowed heavily from Dune (not to mention a load of other science fiction literature such as Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoomian novels), namely Star Wars. Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy goes through a similar arc in that he goes from being an inexperienced young man who leans into his ‘mystic powers’ and comes out, by the opening of Return Of The Jedi, as a powerful badass who can take down an empire if he so decides. By the end of Dune Part Two, Paul Atreides is in a similar state but, as good as the frenetic fight scene at the end between Chalamet and a psychotic bad guy is... and for all his posturing and ‘using his voice’... well, I just didn’t buy it. It felt undersold to me.

And Christopher Walken, who is absolutely great as always, also felt inappropriately cast... unless the Emperor is supposed to feel like a flimsy old man who doesn’t seem to be able to ever have acquired and held on to the power he has, that is. Why would anyone throw down their allegiance to this guy in the first place, was my main thought in his casting. He was great saying the lines but, like Chalamet, seemed to lack the gravitas his part required... and I’m really surprised to hear myself saying that about the legendary Walken, for sure.

Thirdly... what the heck Florence Pugh? I felt she was being totally misused here as an actress. Literally, from her opening of the film as a kind of a ‘recap girl’ and onwards, she seemed to be just there to provide a narrative clarification for the audience in most (if not all) of her scenes... which is a shame because she’s actually an important bargaining chip in Paul Atreides’ end game.

I also spotted a nice cameo from one of my favourite actresses, Anya Taylor-Joy but, it was literally just a very small scene as a character who won’t enter the narrative properly for another 25 years or so later in the saga. So, yeah, I don’t suppose we’ll be seeing much more of her in the inevitable sequel, to be honest. I looked for her name in the cast list at the end and she wasn’t there so, I thought I’d just imagined it but, no, her own IMDB page confirms her inclusion in this film, for sure.

And, of course, the other big star of the film is Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score, which does provide both atmosphere and gravitas and, honestly, probably makes the film sound more epic than it actually is. I can’t wait to get my hands on a CD release of this one soon (I’m assuming they’ll be releasing one on proper CD... the first movie got two albums, one of which was also a double album, if memory serves). The leitmotif follow through on this one is pretty strong so, at times it does almost feel like they’ve tracked in parts of the previous score... but it works really well and, yeah, hoping to have the opportunity to hear a proper physical release of this one at some point in the near future, for sure.

And I think that’s me done on the quite wonderful Dune Part Two other than to say, the film has something of a cliffhanger ending again so... I hope Villeneuve is called in to direct Dune Messiah pretty soon. I shall be looking forward to it. Also, the film jumps around a bit and, I suspect there was a lot of it cut out from various sequences which, giving Villeneuve’s hatred of showing deleted scenes, I suspect I won’t get to see in my lifetime (although future lovers of cinema might get to see them once the director is dead, is my guess).

Tuesday 27 February 2024

The Living Dead Girl









 

Very Gone Girl

The Living Dead Girl
aka La morte vivante
France 1982 Directed by Jean Rollin
Redemption Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: Big story spoilers but, honestly, who watches a Jean Rollin film for the story?

I remember watching this one quite a while ago and being blown away by the emotional performance on this one... something I’m really not used to having to be dealing with on a Jean Rollin film. Revisiting it now on a gorgeous US Blu Ray from Redemption (some of Rollin’s films are still, bizarrely, cut in the UK... so really, don’t buy British)*, I’d have to say that the emotional performance at the heart of the film by the title character is maybe a little diminished in power but I’m mostly putting that down to knowing exactly where the movie is going. It’s actually a bit of a mixed bag though and I’d have to say now that, although I was remembering a lot more from this movie than I actually got, it’s still a resonant film but it pales a little in the wake of Rollin’s previous film, the truly emotional The Night Of The Hunted (reviewed by me here).

Although there are no actual vampires again in this movie (Rollin would return to his favourite night creatures later in life), it does still continue his idea of having a duo of protagonists in the film... who also double as a duo of antagonists, it has to be said, depending on your point of view. The two in question are two childhood friends and... it’s heavily implied... lovers. They are Catherine Valmont played, impressively, by Françoise Blanchard and Hélène, played by Marina Pierro (the actress/later muse of Walerian Borowczyk).

The film starts off with Catherine deceased for two years before she is accidentally resurrected by three gentleman dumping toxic waste drums into the family crypt... in the most improbably manner and in a coincidental and less than credible series of incidents when they are trying to steal whatever is on her, completely non-decomposed body. Don’t go there... it’s a fantasy movie, after all. Anyway, in her newfound, revived by fumes, zombie status, she kills one by gouging his eyes out, another by tearing his throat out... the third has already died by having his face accidentally melted in the chemical spill.

The film plays out like a series of bizarre coincidences, as Catherine returns to her house... more like a castle... and eventually kills the estate agent who is staying at the place while she is trying to sell it, as she is making love to her boyfriend. Then Hélène turns up and discovers Catherine has been resurrected from the dead and, their bond reunited, reminds Catherine how to speak, in a sequence not totally unlike, in Blanchard’s impressive performance, the famous blind man sequence in the 1931 version of Frankenstein (reviewed by me here). Shenanigans ensue as an actress/photographer is trying to find and take more pictures of the dead Catherine who she snapped in the field earlier in the film. Meanwhile, Hélène is starting to gather human victims for her dead friend in order to keep her alive, when it’s found that birds or animals are not good enough as a decent food stock.

But it’s not the story, which kind of hangs together in spite of how it sounds here, that’s the thing that keeps you watching. Nor is it all of the performances as, like Rollin’s early pictures, it’s all a bit hit and miss in that department, with some people doing good and others... best left uncommented on. But Blanchard and Pierro are spot on and the film explores the relationship and the way that Catherine’s zombie is increasingly, through her own growing self awareness (and attempted suicide by drowning... something which doesn’t really work when you’re already dead), seeming less of a bad person while Hélène is actually becoming the evil one of the two, attempting to procure living victims for her friend (indeed, Catherine actually cuts one of them free to help her escape before Hélène returns again).

The film ends with a moving moment where Catherine, driven by her own hunger, eats her willing friend and is left totally alone in the world with an uncertain future. It’s a bleak, nihilistic ending with Catherine screaming at the bloody demise of her friend by her own hand and, I guess it is quite powerful at that.

The film is somewhat atypical of Rollin in some ways. I mean, there’s some nice camerawork, for instance, when Hélène has left a body for Catherine she goes into a small tower filled with pigeons to get away from the screams and, looking up at the ceiling, the camera rotates on a POV from her viewpoint... which is cross cut with the camera rotating the other way at the same speed as we watch Cathrine eat her latest victim. However, there are also various things which I don’t remember seeing Rollin typically do that often, if at all, such as zoom shots, repeats of a shot in slow motion with a phased sound in the background to emphasise a moment early on in the film... and a section of the film shot in jerky, hand held camera and edited to give a kind of chaotic vibe. So, yeah, I guess he was trying something new here too... although there is some confusion about a simultaneous American version made on the same sets at the same time on a different camera in English and shot with a different, quite hostile and aggressive director by all accounts, which never got released... so I’m wondering if some of those shots maybe made their way into the French version.

Another thing is that the goriness of the violence is quite high for Rollin and one wonders if that was a natural progression to be more explicit in the graphic violence or whether that was a condition imposed on him by the producer? It’s kinda interesting but, shot by Rollin, it nevertheless looks incredible. The score however, by one of Rollin’s earlier musical collaborators, Philippe D'Aram, seems a trifle ‘against the grain’ in certain parts of the film. Also, there’s a musical group playing in the village square who have obviously been overdubbed with something completely different... the big giveaway being that they’re seemingly playing an instrumental track but this doesn’t stop the singer belting out whatever song she was singing, with absolutely no vocal on the audio. Um... yeah, okay.

Either way, The Living Dead Girl looks fantastic with Rollin’s usual penchant for the naked female form coming to the fore, mingled with buckets of blood (usually splashed all over said female forms) and some beautiful looking shots. It’s a nice enough movie and, still unusually for Rollin, has an emotional depth to it barely approached by the majority of his movies... but I wouldn’t say this is necessarily a jumping on point if you’ve not seen any of his other masterpieces, for sure. Great if you’re a Rollin fan but maybe best to seek out some of his other movies first, if you are not in the vicinity of that particular fanbase.

*Actually, the recent Indicator editions, which are also quite beautiful in their limited edition versions, seem to be free from cuts in the UK... although it’s very telling as to which of the more famous Rollin titles have not been released by them over here yet. So far they’re safe releases so far but, you know, do your research.

Monday 26 February 2024

The Target Book











Lest We Target

The Target Book -
A History Of The
Target Doctor Who Books

by David J Howe
Telos Publishing
ISBN: 9781845831844


Just a quick shout out of a review to a wonderful book my cousin got me for Christmas. The Target Book - A History Of The Target Doctor Who Books will, I’m sure, bring back lots of memories and rushes of childhood nostalgia for many fans of Doctor Who, above a certain age. I think I had maybe around 60 of these as a nipper (I gave up buying these when I felt I’d outgrown them, very soon after the first few Peter Davidson adaptations were released). Although, the point is made in the book that many of the authors and readers thought of these as being a bit more pitched at an older audience than just the kiddies, as evidenced by the fact, perhaps, that during the Tom Baker era of the series, two of the Baker adaptations, Robot (aka Doctor Who and the Giant Robot) and The Brain Of Morbius were also reissued as separate, ‘dumbed down’ junior editions.

This book is a long and loving look at the history of Target which, despite having a few other titles on its books, became a publishing phenomenon purely on the Doctor Who titles, which sold millions. This takes you right through the history of the company - the rise and fall, so to speak - starting off with a guy called Richard Henwood joining the Universal Tandem publishing company, initially based at Gloucester Road in South Kensington, in the early 70s and starting off a new imprint of the company which he called Target (and which had that distinctive logo that was a sign of quality and adventure to the... um... ‘target audience’ everywhere. The rights to the three Doctor Who novels previously written for the BBC and based on William Hartnell stories were, perhaps somewhat hesitantly, purchased by Henwood and reissued in new covers and... within a month he knew he needed to commission loads more to feed that very popular furnace... they sold like the proverbial hot cakes.

And so it was a deal was struck by the BBC and he approached writers to novelise various existing stories, many of them earmarked by Terrance Dicks, who was synonymous with the Target books and who has written a nice foreward to this very tome. He and other writers delivered the goods and the series went from record sales to more record sales.

The writer then charts the full history of Target up until its demise, when all the stories they were able to get (which was almost all of them) had been adapted and the well ran dry, at which point they semi successfully started commissioning both ‘new’ and ‘missing’ adventures when they were owned by Virgin (the missing ones being stories that existed as scripts for the show but then weren’t, for whatever reason, produced).

The book is absolutely chock full of colourful illustrations including the entire range of Doctor Who Target books up until they were acquired by Virgin and the decision was made to stop using the imprint (it’s back now, with new Doctor Who adventures put out in covers imitating the style of the ones used in the early seventies, by original artist Chris Achilleos no less... who sadly passed away back in 2021, after this book was first published). There are also many previously unpublished illustrations such as various original cover sketches, many of them nothing like the final covers which adorned the finished books.

In addition to this there are constant sidebars throughout, covering the writers - such as Dicks, Malcome Hulke, David Whittaker etc - and the various cover artists - such as Achilleos, Jeff Cummins and Andrew Skilleter - not to mention the odd member of the production staff through various eras of the company. There are also some interesting nuggets such as tables of the various alternate titles used, when the original story title was not deemed exciting enough to capture the imagination of the reading public. I’d forgotten about this and there were a fair few than I’d remembered but, for example, Spearhead From Space became Doctor Who And The Auton Invasion, The Web Planet became Doctor Who And The Zarbi, The Silurians became Doctor Who And The Cave Monsters, Terror Of The Zygons became Doctor Who And The Loch Ness Monster... and so on.

My only criticism with this wonderful tome would be two glaring omissions in terms of the stories behind the novels. One was... well most fans of the series would know when I say KKLAK! Yes, the time Chris Achilleos experimented with using a comic book style piece of onomatopoeia on the cover and made himself unobtainable so the art department at Target, that hated the idea, had to run with it. 

The other was when former screen companion Harry Sullivan... who was played by actor Ian Marter, who wrote a fair few Target adaptations himself (and who tragically died in his forties) introducing something which is almost a swear word into one of his books. Now, I’ve never seen this discussed anywhere but, when his adaptation of the Patrick Troughton story Enemy Of The World was published, a decade or more since the story first aired, I distinctly remember Marter having one character call another a ‘bastard’. This caused a sensation in the playground because, for one, everyone assumed Target was an imprint for children and secondly... and much more controversially for me... since it was a BBC family show, there was no way that word would have been used on the original broadcast (and since tapes of the original broadcast version of that show were happily discovered a decade or so ago, I can confirm that the word is definitely missing from the televised edition). So, yeah, I always wondered if there was any controversy within the headquarters of Target at the time but, this book doesn’t shed any enlightenment on that one, I’m afraid.

But even so, The Target Book - A History Of The Target Doctor Who Books is an outstanding tome for fans of the show who were buying these things in the 70s and 80s (and beyond although, the novelisations stopped becoming special when home video arrived, obviously) and it also gives a fascinating insight into the thought processes and contract deals behind the release of these, once very popular novels. Not to mention some little panels called VWOORP! VWOORP! which reprint various Target writers’ descriptions of the noise the TARDIS makes when it materialises and dematerialises. And, also, it was nice seeing the cover of The Doctor Who Monster Book again (although I might have actually hung onto that one, somewhere, maybe in the loft).

Sunday 25 February 2024

The Five Venoms








Spied A Man
Fighting Venom


The Five Venoms
aka Five Deadly Venoms
aka Wu du
Hong Kong 1978
Directed by Cheh Chang
Shaw Brothers/Celestial Pictures
Arrow Blu Ray Zone B


Ninth up in the recent(ish) Arrow films ShawScope Volume 1 boxed edition is The Five Deadly Venoms and it’s one of just two of the films presented here which I had already seen. The last time I watched it was on my old Region 3 Celestial pictures DVD under the title which I personally think it’s still more well known as, Five Deadly Venoms. I think I quite liked it the first time I saw it but, I have to say, catching up with it again now I feel it drags quite considerably compared to many of the other films in this set.

This one starts of with an old master trying to cure himself of some unspecified illness by boiling himself in a large cauldron of medicine. He is alone in his house with his young student. However, that particular house he is the master of is the... drumroll... House Of The Five Venoms. The young student he has taken on recently is technically the sixth venom but, he is not fully trained up in martial arts yet. The old master is a villain and the Venoms have committed unspecified evils against martial artists over the years as they are ‘anti-martial arts’. All have since gone into the world under special aliases and continue to do things that some may find could be be considered regrettable.

And then we are shown each of the five venoms in training scenarios practicing martial arts as the master breaks down their special skills to the kid. Which, excuse me, makes absolutely no sense since they are an organisation opposed to martial arts but, who am I to argue with the ways of kung fu. So, in the training sessions, each of the five venoms wears an elabourately painted face mask that makes each one look like a member of rock group KISS. The only real difference being that each has the animal of his special skill stuck as a kind of 3D relief on the mask on the forehead (don’t worry folks... it looks sillier than it sounds).

So we have Thousand Hands... who practices the Centipede Style and can move his hands around very fast to make it appear he has lots of hands (kind of). We see him smashing lots of plates to somehow demonstrate this. We have Snake Spirit, who does Snake Style... his hands imitating the style of the head and tail of the snake (originally this was supposed to be a female character in the original script). I don’t think they needed to explain that one to me too much, I would say since, later in the movie, whenever he fights, his hands make hissing, snakey noises for emphasis.  We also have three more venoms practicing in Scorpion Style, Gecko Style and Toad Style. Yeah, don’t ask.

Anyway, the old master is repentant of running a house of evil masters and so he knows that an old man living in a town with the secret of the treasure of the five venoms, will be under threat from these five. He says that youngster venom number six would be no match for any of these guys but if he teams up with any of them who may show that they still have a sense of righteousness, if he can find them, he will be able to defeat the others and then get the secret of where the treasure is, so it can be used for charitable purposes. The old master then dies, leaving his new ward with his noble mission.

So we have a backdrop of a small town with a police force but the five venoms, some known to the audience and some not but, certainly, at this stage, unknown to each other (since none of them knows what each looks like or what name they have taken) are also in town. Two of them murder the old man and his servants but don’t get the location. The mysterious scorpion, whose identity remains hidden but... well... I worked out which one it was from very early on in the film, over an hour before he reveals himself... does have enough intelligence to discover where the treasure map is hidden. Then, when people who are mostly hidden venoms get implicated in the murder, he starts playing people off against other to whittle down the number of surviving venoms Meanwhile, the local police and magistrate, who are taking things very seriously... also have more than a couple of the venoms hiding within the system (yeah, saw through those right away too). In fact, the police take things very seriously indeed and I think modern policing could learn from this method. The officers are told they have ten days to solve the case. The first outstanding day where the case is not solved they will get ten strokes of the cane and the second day, twenty strokes and so on. If only Cressida Dick could have employed these same methods, she may well have had a more efficient police force and still be in charge of them today, I suspect.

There’s not much more to the story than that but I would say that the film is big on mystery, conspiracy and intrigue and little on actual action. There are a few small set pieces including the inevitable fight at the end between four surviving scorpions and the young novice (who has teamed up with one of them) and the action is good, especially the wirework which allows two of the actors to suddenly jump up and stand on a wall at right angles to everybody else like Spider-Man without showing the faintest trace of the wire work. So this stuff is very well done but... there’s just not enough of it to maintain any kind of pace for the movie and it feels a little uneven in that way. There are also some pretty mean spirited torture scenes in the movie which I could have done without.

So yeah, that’s my short take on The Five Venoms and, although the film is highly revered by many, I still can’t see what all the fuss is about on this one and personally I wouldn’t recommend it as a jumping on point for Shaw Brothers. Certainly not the best of the films in this set but still fairly entertaining if you’re not expecting too much from it, I would say.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Madame Web












Uncle Ben’s
Responsibility


Madame Web
Directed by S.J. Clarkson
USA/Canada
2024 Sony/Columbia
UK Cinema Print


Warning: Some spoilers, if you care enough.

Hmm... okay, Madame Web is the first of three Sony films released this year as part of their extended Spider-Man universe. You would think that now they have absconded again with the rights to the character, that they would, at least, feature Spider-Man in these three stories but... oh no. Or rather, actually, yes kinda in this one but... okay I’ll get to that in a minute. The film stars Dakota Johnson as the titular character (although she’s never once referred to as that in the film... which makes total sense when you see the movie) and, due to shenanigans involving her birth and special powers she doesn’t realise she had (like Diana in the first Wonder Woman movie), she is trying to protect three ‘teenage’ girls from the movie’s main villain, who sees future versions of them killing him at some unspecified point. When I say teenage... Isabela Merced, Celeste O'Connor and Sydney Sweeney are all in their twenties, the latter only a few ears away from 30 but, still, it’s Hollywoodland and they’re all supposed to be between about 16-18, it seems to me.

Anyhow... the movie itself has got some of the worst reviews (bearing in mind it wasn’t even screened for critics) I’ve heard for a Marvel related movie but, I have to say, though it’s inferior to almost any of the MCU branded Marvel films, it’s actually not the disaster that people are reporting it to be. Saying that though, I can totally see why it has got that reaction because the structure of the movie promises way more than it gives in terms of what the content of the film is actually going to be... the people making this weren’t that smart not to realise what they did, I think.

So, yeah, Johnson’s character is someone who gets brief glimpses of the very near future, like a very strong deja vu, so she can change things just before they are supposed to happen. So the director will sometimes use a big sound (like a champagne cork being pulled) or sometimes, quite cleverly, a distinctive camera movement, to usher in a replay of the events as they are about to repeat. And although it’s an obvious concoction the first time she does it, it is done pretty well throughout and the visual and audio shorthand built on those key aspects does the job very well.

You also have a couple of good performances, especially Sydney Sweeney (who was so brilliant in last year’s Reality, reviewed here), who really does well with facial expressions and so on to make her ‘bizarrely teen’ teenager come to life in quite sophisticated ways. However, although there are some good and likeable performances here, the structure of the film undermines a lot of the work being done.

Here’s the thing, all the stuff in the trailers where the three girls are in costume and using their spider powers are... just seen as brief, visions of the future in the heads of both the title character and the villain. So there are maybe three brief moments, maybe totalling less than a minute and a half, where you see the girls in costume, at some undetermined future date. In fact, whatever superpowers the three ‘teens’ do acquire... they don’t get them in this movie. It’s for some ‘future’ movie which, I’m guessing, might not even get made... and with Dakota Johnson jokingly downplaying the movie when she’s supposed to be promoting it, I’m guessing the four leads would have to be locked into contracts before they return to those characters. Which may well be the case actually but, I’m guessing this movie won’t be doing the numbers enough to make the next film worth making. This is obviously, like the up and coming Venom 3 and Kraven The Hunter movies, supposed to be leading to the Sinister Six, which started happening (again, it’s Sony’s second lead in after the Andrew Garfield Spider-Man movies) in Morbius (reviewed here)... when Morbius and Michael Keaton’s Vulture character met at the post-credits on that film. But, if the other two perform badly (I suspect Venom will do well but I can’t see the new Kraven doing much better than Morbius), then that may still not happen.

To that end though, there are some really bizarre references to the Spider-Man universe in this film... asides from the Spider powered natives in the Amazon plus the main villain all dressing pretty similarly to Spider-Man. The thing is, though, Sony are making references and shouting them out while simultaneously keeping a lid on things a little with their linking materials. If you are a Spider-Man fan and are not distracted by the visuals, you’ll ‘get’ who a couple of the characters are supposed to be... and one of them is teased but not named, even though fans will know exactly who he is.

The main action of the movie takes place in 2003 and I couldn’t figure out why they did this. Until Dakota Johnson’s character Cassie, a paramedic, calls her partner by name. He’s... drum roll... Ben Parker. Yeah, that’s right... future Uncle Ben. And the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ line, which has been a core Spider-Man ingredient since his first comic book appearance in 1962, is dangled about like crazy in slightly reworded terms. And, that’s not all... Ben’s sister is pregnant and the girls are trying to protect her so she can give birth at the end of the movie. Casual viewers won’t twig it because he’s not named (despite an earlier ‘guess the name of the baby’ scene calling attention to it in the most obvious manner) but by the end of the film she gives birth to Peter Parker... aka Spider-Man. I guess the actor who was/is supposed to be playing that role in ‘films to come’ for Sony is not yet decided, is my guess. Or... you know... not yet given a big enough pay hike to return to that role.

But the biggest problem with the film, as I eluded to earlier, is the fact that it keeps telegraphing the gals suiting up and being super heroes... and so this is what the audience is expecting to happen at some point in the movie. So many people may not be aware that the climactic action scene is exactly that until it's over, I’m guessing, because they are waiting for the superhero element to come into play. It never does and that’s why I suspect we’ve had the huge negative reviews on this. It’s just an overly complicated set up for a film to come (with a poor ending, it has to be said). But, like I said, it’s not a terrible movie... just an unsatisfying one so, yeah, I can totally understand why it’s getting the word-of-mouth that it has. Madame Web is not a crowd pleaser but it’s also not as bad as, say, Morbius was so... there’s that. I had an okay time with it... I’d probably watch it again. Just not anytime soon. Maybe worth watching to see how it locks into the next few Sony Spider-movies perhaps but, there’s absolutely no post-credits scene on this one so, something tells me that rug may have already been pulled.

Monday 19 February 2024

Doctor Who - The Chase







Mechanoid Mayhem

Doctor Who - The Chase
Airdate: 22nd May - 26th June 1965
BBC  Region B Blu Ray
Six Episodes


I’d never seen the Doctor Who story The Chase before. It’s actually down in records as the least popular of the Dalek stories but, I certainly preferred it to a few fair others I’ve seen with those creatures in it, including some which other people consider absolute classics. There’s lots going on in these six episodes but with little actual plot... the Daleks have somehow invented a time machine and are pursuing The Doctor (William Hartnell), Ian (William Russell), Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) through time and space in order to destroy their timelord enemy and his companions once and for all, after their defeat in the Dalek Invasion of Earth (which I reviewed in TV form here).

The TARDIS crew go to a fair few locations such as a desert planet, the Empire State Building, a ship (more on that soon), a horror themed fun house and, finally, the planet Mechanus. So this review is going to be a hotch potch of facts more than anything else... but lots of interesting things, to say the least.

Like the fact that one of the humanoid/formerly aquatic/sand dwellers in the opening two episodes is played by Hywel Bennett in his first role. Or the fact that some of the Dalek props were mismatched, borrowed versions from the first movie version of Dr. Who And The Daleks (reviewed here).

This is also the first Doctor Who story to feature a doppelganger of The Doctor, a robot version constructed by the Daleks to ‘infiltrate and kill’. Unfortunately, the actor standing in for Hartnell as the doppelganger (who was his acting/stunt double on set anyway), looks nothing like him... so it sounds rather disturbing when they dub Hartnell’s voice over his. Having said that, the quality of the signal reception in those days may well have hidden the inadequacies of the character from the original audience.

Episode three marks the first role in this serial for Peter Purves, who plays a bizarre and highly comical American tourist in the third episode. Now William Russell and Jacqueline Hill, much to the consternation and regret of Hartnell, had decided this was to be their last Doctor Who story. The BBC had no contingency plan to replace them with other companions but, because Purves got on so well with Hartnell for the third episode, Maureen O’Brien suggested to the people at the top that he would be someone who could get on with the sometimes cantankerous Hartnell on set and so, for the final episode, Purves returns in a different role, who would be the new companion opposite Vicki for the next year or so.

There are some terrible things which make no sense too. Continuity wise, for example, The Doctor refers to having built the TARDIS himself. This then, is before the established back story that he did, indeed, steal it (unless, maybe he built it then stole it?). But the worst glitch comes in Episode Four, which The Doctor explains, incorrectly, all takes place in the human mind. The crew meet both Dracula and the Frankenstein monster (the latter being somehow totally based on Jack Pierce’s make up job for the Universal horror films... how did this lot not get sued?). However, when the Daleks show up and try to exterminate both these creatures, their death rays do not affect them at all. Indeed, the guy playing the Frankenstein monster must have been pretty strong because you see him pick up a Dalek and throw it. However, a pull back at the end of the episode shows it to have been a futuristic fun house... why then did the Dalek rays not kill or destroy the creatures therein? Make no sense.

But at least, according to Doctor Who lore, we now know why the Mary Celeste was empty. There are shenanigans afoot when the TARDIS arrives but, of course, when the Daleks arrive on the ship, the entire crew are scared and flea to their deaths in the sea. Mystery of the Mary Celeste solved, I guess. It was the Daleks all along!

I’m glad to say that this version of The Chase is uncut (but only the UK Blu Ray version... everywhere else the sequence I talk about next has been sliced out). So you will see about a minutes worth of footage of The Beatles (the only surviving footage of them left in existence of their appearances on Top Of The Pops) although, how Ian can sing along with a song (Ticket To Ride) that hadn’t been released before he got on the TARDIS is anyone’s guess.

And then there are The Mechanoids from the last episode (and a brief appearance at the end of the fifth). These robot creatures were supposed to be the next big thing after the Daleks but, this was their (to date) only proper appearance. My best guess as to why they never took off is... yeah... they’re really pants. Not good monsters at all although, it has ot be said, their English/Basic (computer language) speech is kinda interesting. There is a big battle between them and the Daleks which is all superimposed action montaged together... trying to make it look spectacular and, to be honest, failing at that.

There’s also a ‘still’ montage of Ian and Barbara returning to Earth two years after they’ve left. It’s very Richard Lester inspired, it seems to me but, at least they got a nice send off. As the episode closes, Peter Purves new character is lost, presumed dead but, yeah, I think I know where he is... pretty sure he stowed away on the TARDIS so, we shall see in the final story in this Blu Ray Series Two boxed edition, which is one I’ve always wanted to take a look at. My verdict on The Chase though is that it’s mostly tosh but, so what? It’s very entertaining and interesting tosh so, I’m happy with that. This particular serial was supposed to have been the basis for a third Peter Cushing Dr. Who movie which, alas, never came to fruition.

Sunday 18 February 2024

Vampire VS Vampire













Eyebrow Humour

Vampire VS Vampire
aka Yi mei dao ren
aka New Mr. Vampire 2
aka Mr. Vampire V
Directed by Ching-Ying Lam
Hong Kong 1989
Golden Harvest/Eureka
Blu Ray Zone B


Vampire VS Vampire
is the final film presented in the Hopping Mad - The Mr. Vampire Sequels Blu Ray set from Eureka Masters Of Cinema and sees, after his absence in Mr. Vampire Saga IV, the return of Ching-Ying Lam in a role very similar to the Taoist priest role he played in the three films prior to that. Lam, a former Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee collaborator, also marked his directing debut with this feature, playing One-Eyebrow Priest. The young hopping vampire kid also returns for this movie, dressed pretty much as he is in the previous ones and the other main vampire in this, midst various other threats such as a ghost and a banana tree spirit, is more the traditional, superstrong, non-hopping variant you would find in the west. There is also a bunch of Chinese nuns following Christianity in the movie.

Now, I have to be honest (and this is why you are getting another fairly short review in this case), while it’s not worse than the previous movie I reviewed in the series (reviewed here)... it’s also certainly no better. I quite like Lam and wish he’d made a better movie. Although, in his brief life, he certainly made a mark as a Chinese action icon, in his own way... he was dead from liver cancer at the age of 44, 8 years after directing and starring in this movie. But, yeah, although he’s good in it, it’s a fairly awful and forgettable film.

Although it does, kind of, have a through line on a story element, mostly, it’s really just a lot of comedy action incidents which are edited so that, if you don’t question what’s going on too much, just about hold on to the idea of a story. However, it’s a very thin thread by which the various set pieces are stitched together and that makes it tough to follow sometimes, I thought.

My main problem, with this one... and it’s my main problem with most of the Mr. Vampire films in general (if, indeed, this one really should be credited as a sequel, rather than just a hopeful declaration as such by the marketing people at Eureka Masters Of Cinema), is that it’s really just not funny. These movies are known for their slapstick, very obvious humour, to be sure but, slapstick is not really my favourite form of comedy either. Even so, this has no laughs in it, as far as I’m concerned.

Some of the stunts are to be admired, I guess but, even the wire work seems a bit poorly done on this one, I thought. And it’s not helped, either, by the similar sounding ‘comedy score’ that's credited to three composers, which really works against it and which I am assuming is either just needle dropped in from other films of those composers or, possibly, it might be library music. Once again though, it sounds kind of cheap and synthesiser based which, might work with something more sinister like a horror film but utilised in a more light hearted tone here, it just doesn’t really come off well. I got the feeling that the music is trying to cue the audience in to when they are supposed to laugh but, yeah, it certainly didn’t work for me on this one.

And that’s about all I have to say in the case of Vampire Vs Vampire and the Hopping Mad - The Mr. Vampire Sequels Blu Ray collection in general. Of all the films in the series, the only one that really worked for me was Mr. Vampire III (reviewed here) but, yeah, the other ones felt a little like a chore to watch, to be honest. I probably won’t look at these ones again for a very long time but, I do appreciate the label putting out films like this in the UK. That can only be a good thing, right?

Tuesday 13 February 2024

After Blue - Dirty Paradise


Blue Angels
Killing Kate Bush


After Blue - Dirty Paradise
aka After Blue - Paradise Sale
aka After Blue
Directed by Bertand Mandico
France 2021
Vinegar Syndrome Blu Ray Zone A


Warning: Conceptual spoilers ahead.

After Blue - Dirty Paradise is a relatively new movie, being a real feast for the visual and aural senses for cinema goers who are less invested in the mechanics of a plot and more interested in the dazzling excesses of the medium to create a sense of atmosphere, it seems to me. Actually, of the few people I’ve seen writing about this film for short summaries, there seems to be a complete lack of understanding or, perhaps, just a blanket statement that there isn’t much of a story or plot to latch onto. Some people are saying it’s completely impenetrable/ incomprehensible or plotless too. Well, there certainly is a story to be found in this one but it’s simplistic and, well, kinda redundant in terms of much of a follow through.... the writer/director seems far more fixated on the substance of the stylistic splendor, it seems to me, rather than add any more layers of detail to the through line. Although, his world building is perhaps also obfuscating the view for some people, I suspect.

Okay, the plot is fairly simple and so I will deal with it here.

We have Roxy (aka Toxic) played by model Paula Luna (she does a pretty good job here) and, as her mother Zora, the community hairdresser, there’s Elina Löwensohn. Yep, that Elina Löwensohn, from the Hal Hartley movies... I think the last thing I saw her in was the excellent Let The Corpses Tan (reviewed here) and, it has to be said that, despite the film featuring oodles of female nudity and girl/girl relationships throughout, I actually just picked this one up because I wanted to see what Löwensohn was doing these days. But I digress... after Earth has perished, the survivors find a planet they call After Blue and live in segregated, racial colonies (the Scottish contingent seem a bit aggressive), following the rules of the planet. The men all perish because the atmosphere of the world causes all their body hair to grow inwards and smother them from the inside (if I’m understanding the opening premise correctly).

Anyway, one day Roxy unearths an assassin who has been buried up to her neck in sand, waiting for the tide to come in and drown her. Her name is Katarzyna Buszowska (played by Agata Buzek) but she is generally known as Kate Bush. She grants three wishes to Roxy but leaves after she construes Roxy’s secret wish is to kill her friends and so she does. She also has a third eye which appears in her vagina. She disappears and then the community aggressively send Zora and Roxy on a mission to hunt down and kill Kate Bush. 

The film then becomes a road movie where they meet interesting people such as Sternberg (played by Vimala Pons) with her male looking android, strange places such as forests populated by both art and some unusual, organic, sinister tree like beings called Indiams and, of course, the gals get into strange and mostly philosophical adventures as they verbally explore their surroundings on their quest. That’s the whole thing more or less and, there’s a certain sense of closure to the story but not much as the success of the mission, it seemed to me, is not as cut and dried as it might have been (and for an extra layer of doubt, stick around for a short, post credits scene).

But the story is not what the film is about. It’s a completely psychedelic romp with all kinds of heavily saturated hues bombarding the visuals at all times. It’s also not a traditional road movie either... at one point the local community are all dressed up reminiscent of Meiko Kaji in the Female Prisoner Scorpion movies and, not long after when Löwensohn adopts the same hat, brandishing her winchester-like Chanel (all the weapons seem to be named after perfume or fashion brands)... it becomes clear that this particular road movie is also very much a revisionist western. Indeed, it certainly did remind me of the kind of hollowed out, soulless Spaghetti Westerns people like Lucio Fulci were making at the tail end of the 1960s and into the 1970s.

Now the film has been compared to Barbarella quite a lot (and I’m guessing that’s to both the cinematic version and the original strip) and I can see how the director has certainly tried to look back to these and other psychedelic films of the late 1960s but, for me, it feels like it’s been filtered through a 1980s lens. It’s exactly the kind of movie I would have expected to see ‘back in the day’ in a venue like the Everyman, Hampstead (back when it was a great cinema with essential programming) or the SCALA. One especially vivid sense of 1980s inspired deja vu comes in the opening as we are asked to follow a female voice into the story in precisely the same kind of way as we are invited by Max Von Sydow to do the same at the opening of Europa (which I think was called Zentropa in a lot of countries other than the UK). So, yeah, it hits a certain kind of audience member right in the 80s, I suspect.

The voice interrogating Roxy is what then gives us the story but the flashbacks to the story are also intruded upon by the narrative. You at first think the character is breaking the fourth wall but it soon becomes apparent that she’s speaking to her interrogators from the memory of her experiences and that, occasionally, people in those memories think she’s talking to them... which is kind of a nice, stealth reveal when the realisation sets in. And as I write these words now, I’m struck by the realisation that the post credit scene of the film actually reveals exactly who she’s talking to... so I’m glad I waited until the next day to let it sink in before I started to write this review.

And it’s a joy to watch, not just for its visual ideas but also for its conceptual ideas. For instance, when Roxy crawls under her house she delves into a tin of worm like creatures (obviously contraband) and then lights one as it wiggles around and smokes it like a cigarette. Or a nice visual moment where a table is held up on legs clothed in Wellington boots. And it all looks incredibly beautiful, of course. Completely stagy and fake but, that’s part of it’s charm. And, cliché of an expression or not, the colour palette throughout totally looks like Mario Bava was tripping on some kind of psychedelic drug. There’s a fair amount of rain in the movie too... which is something I quite like to see and, this combined with the heightened, saturated colours certainly gives a nice visual treat. For instance, a shot of Elina Löwensohn rolling around in the mud near the end but with her body and environment bathed in a neon green is pretty interesting.

And that’s me pretty much done with After Blue - Dirty Paradise for the time being... I wouldn’t recommend it to everybody but it’s pretty good for fans of pure cinema where the style is as important (if not more so) than the story content. I also think that when I revisit this one, it’s going to grow on me a lot more and be a much richer experience than my first peek, that’s for sure. And, lets face it, where are you going to find another film with lines like... “I felt Kate Bush in my mouth.” So, yeah, if you get the opportunity, maybe take a look at this one... I’m glad I did. I'm looking forward now to trying to the same director's new Conan movie... where the spelling is changed to Conann and the character is played by five different actresses at different stages of his life.

Monday 12 February 2024

MCU










Some
Assembly Required


MCU - The Reign
Of Marvel Studios

by Joanna Robinson,
Dave Gonzales & Gavin Edwards
Headline Books
ISBN:  97811472270733


To say that the new book MCU, subtitled The Reign Of Marvel Studios, is an unauthorised look at the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be to skew into understatement somewhat. In an introduction, the writers reveal that, after a number of interviews with various players in the history of the famous studio, Disney (who now own the studio) told everyone to stop talking to the writers. I think they must have got wind that this wasn’t going to be a puff piece and, like many of the characters who make up the MCU, would not be pulling any punches.

Perhaps a better subtitle for the novel would be The Rise And Fall Of Marvel Studios because, as the book comes to a close somewhere after the flop that was Ant-Man Quantumania (perhaps deservedly so) and a little before the flop of The Marvels (which was less deserved, as far as I’m concerned), it’s definitely painting a less than idyllic picture of the culture of the studios, where they are today and, well, while 2024 is going to be a weird year for all iterations of the Marvel movies based on their comic books released by different companies (see my 2500th Blog Post here for clarification on that matter), I think they’re going to have to really rework all their plans quite a bit to try and resurrect themselves to return to their former box office pull, it seems to me. A reinvention may well be in order, I suspect.

Okay, so the book is an interesting one. It doesn’t just deal with the MCU branded Marvel movies in the opening of the book... which is split into five multi chapter sections, Phase Zero through to Phase Four, reflecting the chronological stage in time with the marketed ‘phases’ of the Marvel Cinematic Universe... it also deals with other movies (most of which would be swallowed or folded into the MCU much later) and talks about some of the people behind them. Indeed, it’s a well written book and the writers introduce you to key players in the MCU and beyond, introducing people like Avi Arad and the influential Kevin Feige into the mix and showing you just how they fit into things.

And it’s a compelling tome because, while there’s tonnes of stuff I knew from my constant monitoring of Twitter about various stories (well, monitoring is a strong word, the stories just appeared in my timeline because they are well loved movies), it’s all very much encapsulated here in one place and, there’s also plenty of stuff I didn’t know too. For instance, there are some times in the history of these movies where the studio really rolled the dice and risked total bankruptcy to get the resources they needed to make the movies they believed in. Such as mortgaging the rights to most of their own characters for the money to make the first Iron Man... a risk that definitely paid off big time.

And there’s stuff I didn’t know such as the ending of that particular movie being rewritten and recreated in the editing room and with some reshoots to completely change it and give it more of a climactic finale. There’s also the disturbing, to me, element... considering just how good some of the Marvel movies are... of that thing where people off the cuff say... oh, they just made that movie to sell toys. Unfortunately, it turns out that’s completely true in the upper echelons. Iron Man and Hulk were picked to be the stars of the first two MCU films purely because a bunch of kids they play tested thought they would be the coolest characters to buy as toys. Indeed, there’s huge tension throughout most of the history of the studio, since Marvel was bought by Toy Biz before these films, between the creatives and the head suit who didn’t even want female superheroes or characters in the movies because the historical wisdom suggested kids don’t buy female action figures (and, yes, that’s exactly why there were none to few Black Widow toys tying into the first couple of Avengers movies, with the character being replaced in play sets with other figures riding her motorbike). Thankfully, it transpired that Feige and others managed to push back on the inclusion of female characters and a fair few other issues so that, while the majority of the Marvel movies were definitely kickstarted for what they call their ‘toyetic’ value, quality films were still made from the beginnings of these projects.

Another thing which surprised me was the way the artists drawing spectacular visions of Marvel characters out before each film’s conception were dictating scenes which would be in the movies, rather than the other way around. I’m surprised that none of the writers of this book realised (or at least stated that they did) that this is actually a parallel to the way respected Marvel maven Stan Lee used to write the original comics, what he called the ‘Marvel method’, where after a basic storyline was given, the artists would be free to come up with their own panels and Stan and others would then put the dialogue on over the bubbles and tie it all together retrospectively.

And there’s a lot of stuff that people who have followed the studio’s trials and tribulations will recognise in some form. For instance, Edward Norton and Joss Whedon don’t particularly come off very well here. And you get the feeling that some, if not many, lessons were learned from writer/director Edgar Wright’s original, legendary Ant-Man script... which led to some bitterness, for sure. The effect of Covid on the later shoots is also detailed, as are the various spats between the studio and it’s creative talent both behind and in front of the camera. James Gunn’s firing and re-hiring, for example... or the row about simultaneous streaming and theatrical releases as a result of the pandemic that rightly brought actors like Scarlett Johansson out to start law suits against the company. Not to mention the bankruptcy of various special effects companies like Rhythm And Hues, put out of business by being locked into absurdly agreed, low fees for effects work that was, for companies like Marvel, a constantly moveable feast. I suspect that’s still playing out right now because, hmm, I haven’t seen the third Spiderverse movie debuting this April as originally stated... not to mention the number of MCU titles now pushed back to next year.

Another thing I found interesting was the reveal on various intricacies and machinations of just who Spider-Man belongs to in any given film (it’s Sony) and how the MCU movies which feature him were actually negotiated as big profit makers for Sony rather than Marvel, who were helping to bankroll them (although they were, themselves, raking in money on the toys associated with these films). And I also learned about a newish thing instigated by Marvel for character creators called the Special Characters Contract... and how that is also sometimes abused to maintain low payments to some of the creators of the original characters in the comic book universe.

And that’s me done with MCU - The Reign Of Marvel Studios, I think. It’s not ever going to be able to look at all the product they’ve put out in any great detail (it's already well over 400 pages long) but the casual reader like myself will find that it’s very well written and lays out how some of these movies and deals are put together in an easy to understand fashion. And pay heed, future readers. After the end notes of the book start, don’t just assume you’ve come to the end because, to mimic the style of the post and mid-end credits scenes in the MCU movies themselves, the writers have hidden an extra chapter right in the middle of this section... which is a nice touch. I really enjoyed this book and, all I can say is... I hope the writers would consider putting together a similarly themed tome for the DC Cinematic Universe at some point. That’s also a book I’d love to read.

Sunday 11 February 2024

Mr. Vampire Saga IV










Tatty Taoists

Mr. Vampire Saga IV
aka Geung see suk suk
aka Uncle Vampire
Directed by Ricky Lau
Hong Kong 1988
Golden Harvest/Eureka
Blu Ray Zone B


Wow, this is terrible. Now I actually quite liked the third film in the Mr. Vampire series, Mr. Vampire III (reviewed here), even though it had no vampires in it, hopping or otherwise. Mr. Vampire Saga IV, the third of the four films in the Hopping Mad - The Mr. Vampire Sequels Blu Ray set from Eureka Masters Of Cinema, sees a return to the hopping vampires as the main supernatural menace in this movie but, alas, it’s just not a good film.

The story is about two Taoist monks and their respective apprentices (one male apprentice and one female, throwing in the inevitable comedy love interest vibes) who are neighbours and who hate each other. After a series of makeshift ‘duels’ between the two masters, such as a food fight and a couple of scenes where they possess each other’s bodies, the titular vampires get loose and the four of them, plus a kid who they are trying to save from eternal damnation after being bitten, have to defend the two homes against a bunch of vampires, including one genuinely aggressive and powerful one, despite all that hopping (I suspect it was this guy that Kim Newman must have based the hopping vampire in his first Anno Dracula novel on).

Like the last movie in the series, the film is quite fast paced and, more or less, just goes from one comedy action set piece to another without much let up and, while that somehow worked in the previous film’s favour, I have to say that it really didn’t help that this film wasn’t, in any way, funny to me. I rarely find slapstick funny unless it’s done really well (such as The Marx Brothers or early period Woody Allen) but, even so, I didn’t have one occasion in this one where I found myself even cracking a smile, to be honest.

That being said, some of the stunts and the timings of the comedy duels and the acrobatics of the four main characters are certainly to be admired. You won’t be doing very well in one of these movies if you are in any way unfit and the actors and actresses (including a more effective scene with a lady playing an aggressive fox spirit) are all more than up to the task. It looks like they’re doing many, probably all, of their own stunts in this one too, including athletic jumps, back flips and other, probably quite dangerous stuff. So, like I said, you do have to admire some of this stuff even if, as in my case, it isn’t quite your cup of tea.

Like the previous installments, the music is unsubtle and broadly comic which, I suspect, doesn’t really help things. I’m guessing a more subtle, less ‘on the nose’ score might well have made this fourth installment more palatable to me but, as it is, it just didn’t do it any favours, that’s for sure.

So apologies but, it’s another very short review for one of these films as, yeah, Mr. Vampire Saga IV just didn’t do much of anything for me. That being said, I am quite looking forward to the next in the box set because the main actor from the previous three movies, who is very good, is in it. However, I am slightly suspicious that Vampire Vs Vampire is not one of the Mr. Vampire sequels at all so, goodness knows what it’s doing in this set. I’ll take a look soon and let you know, I guess.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Argylle










Diamond Geezah!

Argylle
Directed by Matthew Vaughn
USA/UK
2024 Apple Films
UK Cinema Print


Now I loved Matthew Vaughn’s first Kingsman film (reviewed here) and, after seeing the trailer for Argylle, it looked like a movie tailor-made for me and very much in the same kind of ballpark. And then the warnings started coming in... I mean, really bad word of mouth about it. Indeed, it seems to be both a critical and financial bomb which is really not going to do the director any favours. Still, I soldiered on to the cinema because the trailer really had been enticing, in the hopes that I was out of step with other audience members... remembering that some of the best films made met with a similar lack of enthusiasm.

And, wow, all I can say is... the kinds of people who are not appreciating Argylle are obviously the same kinds of audiences who don’t appreciate films like Barbarella, Modesty Blaise, Our Man Flint and any other number of psychedelic masterpieces you could mention. This is seriously good cinema and I can only hope that, since it’s made by Apple, they see fit to give it a proper physical release because I want to grab the Blu Ray of this to show some people as soon as possible.

Now, a full on blow by blow of the plot would possibly spoil things for the slower thinkers in the audience but, I feel I can at least say as much as the trailer gives away, to give a flavour of the story. Secret agent Argylle, played by Henry Cavill, is the typical James Bond (more like a halfway house between Derek Flint and Matt Helm) who opens the film with a particualarly strong dance, shoot and chase scene.... before it’s revealed to the audience that he’s actually the lead character in the book series of successful writer Elly Conway, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. That’s the first twist. The second twist, also revealed in the trailer, is that she meets a guy played by Sam Rockwell on a train journey and he really is a secret agent, who is then trying to save her life as an evil agency wants what’s in her head. Oh... and she has a funny cat which she carries around in a satchel. And that’s all you’re getting in terms of plot from me. There are more twists and turns and I’m guessing most people will definitely see them all coming long before they happen... but that doesn’t stop this thing from being a very watchable movie.

The film turns into a funny, deadly, glamourous and certainly colourful action spy movie which, not for even one second (I’m glad to say), takes itself even remotely seriously. And perhaps that’s what turns some people off... the film loses contact with reality at some point and the tone shifts into an absolutely stylish mix of psychedelia and silliness... which is right up my street. I do apporeciate silly situations and even silly people when the right ones enter my life (Hi Katrin!) and, this movie has it in spades, it has to be said.

There’s a whole host of famous actors in this too, including Samuel L. Jackson, Bryan Cranston, John Cena and even the great Sofia Boutella... and they all do a good job here playing things as straight as they need to doing with this kind of coherent brand of ridiculous shenanigans. Howard and Rockwell are both especially good in this one, it has to be said.

Also great is Lorne Balfe’s quite beautiful and sweeping score which, I really wouldn’t have guessed was by this composer at all. Alas, the damn thing isn’t out in any kind of format to date (not even a proper CD) so I’m not going to be able to listen to this one as a stand alone experience anytime soon, I’m guessing. Which is a shame and, once again, shows the short sightedness of the people on these movies who make that kind of decision.

All in all, I’d have to say I had a very good time with Argylle. The tonal shift from ‘just about credible’ to full-on bonkers is probably going to put off many people (as I think is evidenced by the box office) but I loved the film, especially (and without trying to give too much away), the ‘Tommy Crown’ coloured smoke, dance assault scene and the ‘oil skating’ scene, both of which were big hits for me. I don’t understand why, as is already clear, some people aren’t able to embrace this kind of audacious cinematic spectacle but, there you have it, it’s getting bad reviews and doing poor business but... I don’t care. I loved it and I think people who are into 1960s ‘camp/spoof’ cinema especially will have a good time with it. 

Monday 5 February 2024

87th Precinct








Revellers
And Carellas


87th Precinct
Airdate 1961 -1962
30 episodes
Timeless Media Group


I’ve never read an Ed McBain novel but he’s probably best known in literary terms for writing the many 87th Precinct books over the decades... from which there have been many movie adaptations and ‘inspired by’ credits... such as the novel King’s Ransom forming the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low. They even used some of the stories from his 87th Precinct books for TV shows, such as the odd episode or two of Columbo.

Ed McBain is also the pen name of one Evan Hunter, who wrote film and TV scripts such as The Birds with Alfred Hitchcock. As I said though, I’ve not read his books (yet, is there a nice big omnibus?) and I don’t know that much about him. But I knew of him mostly because, when I was a kid, my dad used to grab a lot of books from the library. Seemed like he’d get through quite a few books a week when travelling to and from work and also in his rare downtimes and, yeah, he read a lot of Ed McBain’s stuff. So I was absolutely delighted when, early last year, I stumbled upon a little known TV show based on McBain’s 87th Precinct. And what’s more, it had actually made it onto DVD in the US so, I imported one over for my dad’s birthday and sat down to watch the first episode with him, totally getting hooked on them myself too. We watched an episode a night and got through them in a month with my only puzzlement being, why the heck was this not picked up for a second series?

There are thirty stand alone episodes, of which, many are based on the original novels and some of which also have a screenplay by McBain. And they’re mostly pretty good. They are, like I imagine the novels are, ensemble pieces. Police procedurals involving a number of police detectives who work in the fictional 87th Precinct. The series takes four of the characters (another turns up for a single episode late in the show’s one season run) with some episodes getting equal play from all four characters and other episodes highlighting one or two of the four but, still with a little help from the others. And, there are an absolutely brilliant bunch of actors playing this lot too...

The top billed lead is Robert Lansing as Detective Steve Carella. I’m sure he’s best remembered by many now for the single episode of Star Trek he appeared in, Assignment: Earth, where he played mysterious intergalactic secret agent Gary Seven (one of my favourite episodes as a kid). That episode was supposed to be a stealth pilot episode for a new series highlighting the adventures of Mr. Seven but, alas, that did not come to pass. 

Then there’s Ronald Harper as Detective Bert Kling. Some may remember him for his later stint as Virdon on the TV show version of Planet Of The Apes. Next, my favourite of the bunch, Norman Fell as Detective Meyer Meyer, another actor who’s been in tonnes of stuff but finally found fame in the US as their version of George from the US versions of Man About The House and George And Mildred (got no idea what they were called over there, sorry). Finally there’s Gregory Walcott as Detective Roger Havilland... who I’m told is not written like the corrupt, unliked cop he is in the books but, heck, he’s pretty good in this regardless.There are a few other regulars but these are the main ones.

Also joining them for four episodes, randomly spaced throughout the season, is the great Gena Rowlands playing Teddy, Carella’s deaf/mute wife. She’s pretty good in the episodes she’s in and a few of the other spouses and girlfriends of the gang are also very watchable. Plus, there the usual slew of people who were guest stars almost, in that they were already famous, popping up for single episodes... such as Robert Culp and Victor Jory (who played The Shadow earlier in his career)... not to mention various people who hadn’t quite reached a level of fame yet such as Peter Falk, Bernie Hamilton and Sidney Klugman (who I used to love in Cagney & Lacey).

The plots are all great and it took the episode based on King's Ransom for me to realise just how much Kurosawa expanded and changed the material (and maybe the TV show did too. for all I know)... using the same story idea but making something completely different from the source (no train sequence or pink smoke in this one either). But what did surprise me, keeping in mind the years in which it was broadcast, is how gritty and edgy the show can be. 

For instance, in the first episode, Robert Culp is playing a very modern serial killer with a fair degree of mental illness and, while it’s a cliché these days, possibly... it’s certainly a step up in overt craziness compared to what other films like, say, Psycho were expressing at the time. And, quite often but not always, there’s no redemption for some of these characters, including the inevitable episode based on a well respected ex-87th Precinct cop pulling a string of brutal robberies.

Also, what really impressed me was the acting ability and imagination of the four leads. For example, someone may be scribbling an address down from a book held by another character while they’re in mid conversation and one character may close the book thinking the other has finished noting it down and then the other character will grab it and reopen it to the right page as he’s still talking, to finish writing down the lead (that one courtesy of Lansing). And there’s lots of little acting details like this which really show a bunch of thespians absolutely at the top of their game and all pulling together to bring a high level of believability and authenticity to their roles.. I think McBain used to ride around with the cops to get an ear for the dialogue and an understanding of police procedure and it really wouldn’t surprise me if some of these actors did the same here to get into their roles.

One last thing... the majority of the show is scored by Morton Stevens, who also supplied a superb piece of hard hitting, main title music. Why has this thing not been released on CD? A few of the shows also had scores by other people including a young Jerry Goldsmith on one. Morton Stevens would, of course, go on to become one of Mr. Goldsmith’s most trusted orchestrators.

And that’s me done on 87th Precinct. If you like cop shows and police procedurals then you’ll find this is a brilliant show. And with its hard hitting stories and sharp humour, I’m surprised it’s not better known. This one gets a solid recommendation from me any day of the week.

Sunday 4 February 2024

The Scarlet Claw











Sanity Claws

The Scarlet Claw
Directed by Roy William Neill
USA 1944
Universal Blu Ray Zone B


The eighth of the series of wonderful Sherlock Holmes movies finds Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson without the aid of Mary Gordon as housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, for once. This is because the story of The Scarlet Claw... which is one of the concoctions of the studio writers as opposed to being based on anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle actually wrote, asides from the main protagonists, of course... is set not in England but Canada.

This film more closely aligns to the kind of set up of the classic Universal Monster movies of the time (indeed, Rathbone had already played the lead role in Son Of Frankenstein, reviewed here) as it starts off with a woman with her throat ripped out, ringing a church bell for help while, on this dark and foggy night, the rest of the village of La Mort Rouge (yeah, the Red Death... great name for a village, I guess) are hiding in their beds or in the local pub. The rumours have started up again, midst a bunch of nightly sheep killings (found with their throats torn out) that the famous monster of La Mort Rouge has once again returned to prowl the village. So, yeah, this werewolf sounding premise is certainly in keeping with their current flock of horror movies at Universal and, luckily for most in the village, Sherlock Holmes and his trusty Watson happen to be in the area, 12 miles over, to attend an international meeting of The Occult Society... primarily to debunk the idea that there are various sinister phenomena at work in the world (something certainly in keeping with the spirit of Holmes, of course, but Conan Doyle would surely have found himself standing in strong disagreement with his most popular creation on this issue).

Lord Penrose, who opposes Holmes involvement, happens to be married to the lady who perished at the start of the film and, against his wishes, Holmes and Watson soon find themselves working the case in La Mort Rouge, primarily due to the delivery of a letter asking for Holmes assistance, sent to them by the murder victim but arriving long after she has left this mortal coil.

This one’s a real good one, yet again (did they ever make any bad ones in this series) and there are lots of village pubs and scenes of sneaking around on the boggy mires... I suspect the writers were asked to come up with something similar in tone and spirit to the famous Hound Of The Baskervilles, which had kick started this franchise when 20th Century Fox started it (you can find my review here). This would make sense for Universal, when you think of all the fog shrouded, stalking monsters of their horror output.

This was the third of the series to include actor Gerald Hamer in its cast and he does a good job here in a more expanded role. He would also be in a couple more of these films after this one and the series certainly seems to have a good stock of actors regularly called upon to fill these roles out. He’s just one of many who interact with Rathbone and Bruce in some wonderful scenes with the usual amazing performances. 

I remember discovering once how Warner Oland used to pause when speaking in a conversation when he was playing Charlie Chan to give an authenticity to a character who would have been trying to work out in his head the best way of saying his thoughts in English. Rathbone is similarly thorough in his performance of Holmes and this is another one where he proves his worth as an actor. Look at the intensity of his gaze at various people when conversations are going on around him. He perfectly conveys someone who is watching everyone like a hawk... studying and noticing any and every clue and always alert for any giveaway a suspect may accidentally drop in his words.

And Nigel Bruce is on his usual fine form as both the bumbling comic relief (probably a little more overtly here, even, than usual) but also someone who is willing to share the dangers of Holmes’ cases and, indeed, even manages to inadvertently save Holmes’ life at one point. There are some wonderful conversations he has with the locals including a long set of tongue twisters about whether a certain sound made by a car horn is a honk or a hoot. Bruce finally concludes “I don’t give two hoots whether it’s a honk or a hoot!” Rathbone’s lines are no less ostentatious but he also delivers them very well, making lines like “His orgy of crime is not complete!” seem positively common in their usage.

The murders in this one are committed by an ex-actor who goes about disguising himself as various characters and commits the murders using a five pronged garden instrument to mimic the claws of the mythical beast... probably the very same prop, I suspect, as the one used in a similar fashion two years later in She-Wolf Of London (reviewed here and a film which, incidentally, included Dennis Hoey in its cast playing a very similar role to Inspector Lestrade, who doesn’t turn up in The Scarlet Claw, again... because it’s set in Canada).

One of this murderous actor’s roles is a ghostly apparition which, his clothes covered in a phosphorescent coating, looks particularly effective as he stalks Holmes on the marshes (I’m surprised Universal didn’t use this ‘special’ effect more often). It’s unusual to see somebody else donning the disguises in a Sherlock Holmes film but, by the end of the picture, Rathbone does indeed adopt a disguise in order to catch the villain... made up to look like one of the other actors in the cast, although I did spot it beforehand this time around.

And that’s me done with The Scarlet Claw, I think. Another mini masterpiece in this amazing franchise of movies, one of the best series of films about a running character that’s been committed to celluloid. And, yes, although it has its detractors, not least because of the way the source material has been changed (including the obvious contemporisation of the characters), I still believe these are the best Sherlock Holmes films to date and are a real treat for all fans of the art of cinema. Once again Rathbone concludes with a patriotic quote from Churchill about the importance of Canada, “the linchpin of the English speaking world” and, yeah, it’s clichéd but even that brings a smile to the face at the end.